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A rising tide of go-getters

Kristelle Siarza, CEO of Siarza Social Digital, center, and her staff, from left, Donyelle Lucerco, Robert Brown and Auri Vigil. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Kristelle Siarza, CEO of Siarza Social Digital, center, and her staff. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Editor’s Note: For more about Albuquerque’s new wave of entrepreneurs, the Journal asked five to detail their experience. Read what Micaela Brown, Travis Kellerman, Trish Lopez, Kristelle Siarza and Nicole Taylor have to say here.

When Kristelle Siarza decided to launch her own company last year, she never dreamed of doing it anywhere but Albuquerque.

First and foremost, the Duke City is her hometown. It helped that she recognized local demand for her digital-centric marketing and communications expertise.

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But the 28-year-old also liked the idea of staying “in a city that is supportive to young entrepreneurs like me.”

Indeed, Siarza joined a swelling number of 20- and 30-somethings building their own businesses in Albuquerque, a wave partly attributable to the community’s recent focus on fostering entrepreneurship among people of all ages. A concerted effort by city leaders – including Mayor Richard Berry’s administration, the University of New Mexico, nonprofit business groups and the private sector – has created a growing network of resources that startups can tap for guidance, support and collaboration.

Siarza, for example, works out of FatPipe ABQ, an 18-month-old incubator and co-working space located within the city’s burgeoning Innovation District.

Though Siarza has opted to stay home, New Mexicans for years have lamented the loss of the state’s promising young minds – the dreaded “brain drain.” Siarza, in fact, is currently working with business groups such as the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry and Albuquerque Economic Development on a survey of millennials who have left, seeking feedback about where they went and why.

Jeff Mitchell, director of University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business & Economic Research, said there is some evidence showing a net out-migration of people ages 18-34 from the state, though he cautions that the data is based on small research samples with a large margin of error. He also notes that the trend is only over the past few years and could change when the job market improves.

But Mayor Berry is hopeful that creating an entrepreneur-friendly environment is one way to keep the city’s best and brightest young adults in place and perhaps lure others.

“I can’t think of anything we’re doing that isn’t attractive to millennials,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be exclusive for them, but they’re a big part of the equation now.”

The city’s young entrepreneurs say their generation is more seemingly inclined to create its own opportunities.

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“I used to hear a lot of rhetoric about people feeling sorry for my generation or the one coming up, that they didn’t have a defined role in the world, and I don’t think that’s the case. I just believe it’s not the old role,” said Travis Kellerman, who, at age 31, has already been involved with seven different startups, most of them in Albuquerque. “We’re defining our role and we feel comfortable doing that; we feel empowered doing that.”

Kellerman said the mindset is certainly not unique to a certain age group, but that millennials – a population that encompasses those in their tweens to mid-30s – in particular seem to value the flexibility and challenges that come with entrepreneurship.

“They don’t feel the need to engage in the old corporate track, so how can they blaze their own trail?” said Kellerman, who has worked with high-profile Albuquerque companies like Lavu. “It doesn’t always work out, but they’re willing to take that risk.”

While Kellerman has devoted most of his energy to software-related companies, the city’s new wave of entrepreneurs comes from a variety of sectors. Nicole Taylor – who now serves as an event coordinator for the entrepreneur resource center The Epicenter Downtown – started her own personal organizing and housecleaning company at age 28. She said she sees her peers imagining new business concepts all the time.

“There are many ideas cropping up all over the place,” she said. “People in my generation especially are highly enthusiastic about being their own boss and being able to create something in their own space.”

Berry, once a 20-something Albuquerque entrepreneur himself, believes the city provides numerous advantages for those looking to do that. In addition to the multiple initiatives and programs specifically geared toward startups, he touts other applicable benefits like the relatively low cost of living and doing business.

“It’s a good value destination. If you’re just staring out and you’re a millennial, you can thrive here,” he said. “That’s what happened to me; (I) started with a couple of thousand dollars. That gets me two days in New York City. It got me six months (here).”

He also sees Albuquerque’s size compared to the San Franciscos and Bostons of the world as another benefit. It’s a place where new companies have an easier time getting traction and notice.

Ross Baird of Washington, D.C.-based Village Capital, said the size allows younger entrepreneurs more access to officials and other decision-makers, and promotes collaboration.

“There are cities that feel like, if you’re a millennial entrepreneur coming to town, the city is just on your side, and it feels like the community is on your side here,” said Baird, whose accelerator has worked on projects in 24 cities, including a recent Albuquerque training program for those working on water-related technologies. “And I think relationships matter more to millennials than older generations.”

Berry said the city already has several qualities that millennials value in general – diversity, a robust arts scene – and is also working toward making other improvements to make it more attractive to younger people, like Downtown revitalization and improving public transportation.

But for all Albuquerque’s existing assets for this rising tide of go-getters, there remains a big challenge – money. Berry estimates that New Mexico could use an influx of $30 million to $50 million in venture capital. However, he hinted that there might be some reason for hope.

“That is something we need to do better. No announcements (right now), but I think you’re going to start hearing here pretty soon that there’s some pretty positive movement in that direction,” he said.

 


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